Lessons learned from the pandemic
By Connie Lannan

Lessons learned from the pandemic

Like other event rental operations, Marianne’s Rentals, Oklahoma City, experienced a total shutdown during the worst days of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. For the first time in her 21-year rental career, Jennifer Rodriguez, CERP, general manager, thought her family event rental operation might not be able to survive, but it did, coming back stronger and learning some hard lessons in the process.

Rodriguez can never forget the onset of her world turning upside down. “We came back from The ARA Show™. We had purchased a lot of items at the show. At the business, we were ramping up a construction project — adding onto our warehouse and showroom, knowing that we would have a lot of expenses once we started. Marianne, my mother and owner of the company, was stockpiling her dollars. We got one building started and were days away from signing the contract to the showroom,” Rodriguez says.

As word of the virus and case counts started to increase, “it became abundantly clear that we should not sign the contract and that we needed to cancel everything we ordered at the show. It was like a tsunami. Orders were canceling in droves. We had a managers meeting. We had enough to be fine for three months. That next Friday, the leadership team met and we knew we had to send everyone home. By the end of February, we closed our operation,” she says.

That concept of shutting down the business was so foreign to her. “You know in the event industry we all have this concept that we always will be fine. There always will be someone who needs something. Because our entire business model is based around people gathering. For the first time in my entire life, I was faced with the reality that we could close. When you are the one feeling it, it is like, ‘Holy cow.’ This business is our whole life. My entire family works here. Other families work here. There’s nobody to help anybody if this place goes under,” she says.

The most difficult task was furloughing the workforce. “Marianne and I personally cut the workforce in half. That was the worst day. Thankfully, everyone was understanding. You feel like a failure even though it isn’t your fault. Then, within a week, we cut it down to our leadership team. The thought was when we came back we would need to have everyone rebuild their teams. The plan was to physically close for two weeks. I forwarded my phone to my cellphone. The cancellations kept coming. Money was flowing out and nothing was coming in. We finally had to say no more refunds,” Rodriguez says.

The planned two-week shutdown turned into six weeks. “During that time, Marianne turned into a hustler — renegotiating all our contracts and leases. Nothing was being purchased. We kept our leadership team on payroll even though we sent them home. We didn’t want them to get other jobs because the thought was if we come back quickly that it would be a sharp V-shaped return. If we didn’t have them, we would be rebuilding every department by ourselves. That would not be manageable. Then Marianne got us the essential business designation. On May 1, 2020, we came back to work, but we were not open to the public. We had a strict no interaction rule. All departments were segregated. We spoke across parking lots and via phones. Every department had its own bubble,” she says.

By the end of May, the company started seeing clients by appointment only. Mask mandates, etc., were enforced. “By June 1, we were pretty busy. We had a great summer — July, August and September. By Nov. 1, it died again. We had a lot of really bad weather here — floods and freezes. We lost so many workdays because of ice and snow. Just before Texas had theirs, we had an ice storm and lost power for 17 days. We also had a full property flood. We were squeegeeing out 5 or 6 in. of water out of every building on my property — and we have more than 100,000 sq. ft. of warehouse,” Rodriguez says.

By August 2020, the company was able to bring everyone back. “We said we would hang on to everyone, even through the winter. The warehouse we started building before COVID got finished in January. Once that got done, we had a massive move. We did a warehouse shuffle. Four warehouses were moved around. It got busy before we could get done with the warehouses,” she says.

When business started picking it, it was very last-minute requests. “Customers didn’t want to pay the money and risk that they couldn’t cancel — so we were getting calls on Tuesday for a wedding for 200 on that Friday. That was very hard. Everything was last-minute. We were doing half the work but all at warp speed. By the first part of spring, we had been back a full year, but it was still slow. We had another really bad ice storm over spring break. When that cleared and the sun came out — ever since the first of March and April of this year — we have been flooded with orders and events. Everyone wants it now. We are all just exhausted. We are not just working at our normal pace, but we are working more than we did before. I tell everyone the scars are deep. The trauma is real. We are all doing our best to hang in there. We are trying to hire more people to help the team,” Rodriguez says.

Going through this ordeal has taught Rodriguez important life lessons.

“Nothing I knew from my gut is relevant now. A hard lesson that I learned is that you can lose your business even if it has nothing to do with you. I also learned you really don’t know anything. The minute you think you know anything, be ready for a hard lesson,” she says.

That lesson segued into lesson No. 2. “That was that we just had to figure it out. We kept adapting and pivoting,” she says.

After a while, she became numb to all the challenges, the changes and pivots she had to make. “It felt like every day there was some kind of hit — some kind of bad news. It could have been someone was leaving, you lost a contract, your numbers aren’t as good as you wanted them to be or you have tried to renegotiate a lease for a vehicle and that didn’t work. It was like every day what we would have considered bad news before was just what was. Now Marianne and I just looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we’ll figure that out and move onto the next problem.’ We developed this numbness that normally would have triggered us,” she says.

Even with all the trauma and turmoil, Rodriguez knows she is lucky. Business is booming — a situation she is very grateful for. She also knows that living through COVID has given her the resolve, determination and life lessons to continue evolving, adapting and responding to take care of her customers in the best possible way.

Connie Lannan

Connie LannanConnie Lannan

Connie Lannan is special projects editor for Rental Management. She helps plan, coordinate, write and edit ARA’s quarterly regional newsletters, In Your Region. She also researches, writes and edits news and feature articles for Rental Management, Rental Pulse, supplements, special reports and other special projects. Outside of work, she loves to bake for others, go for walks with her husband and volunteer for her church and causes she believes in.

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